Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Good Question

Steven Trimble over at the DEW Line put up a post that meshed perfectly with something I had been mulling over recently. What was the last major weapons system procurement contract that the USAF managed to get successfully signed?
Quick: Name the last time that the US Air Force successfully signed a contract for an all-new aircraft, competitively-sourced, that wasn't later canceled or indefinitely postponed due to legal challenges?

Answer: October 26, 2001, or nearly seven years ago.

That was the date when then-Secretary of the Air Force Jim Roche announced that Lockheed Martin won the Joint Strike Fighter competition. To their eternal regret, I believe, Boeing did not file a protest.

(Of course, even in that case, the JSF joint program office -- led by US Marine Corps Maj Gen Mike Hough -- actually managed the competition. The air force happened to be JSF's "executive agency" at the time, which gave Roche the right to announce the winner.)


Since 2001, the air force has failed even once to successfully select an all-new aircraft after a competition. Failed attempts include the original lease-buy deal for 100 KC-767s in 2003, and the E-10A program that was canceled in 2005.

Moreover, the CSAR-X contract remains in competition after the Government Accountability Office twice over-turned the air force's selection of the Boeing CH-47. And now, of course, the second attempt to replace the USAF's oldest KC-135Es is again tied up in GAO purgatory.

Compare that to the navy's record over the same period. Since 2001, the navy, which has other priorities besides buying new aircraft, has successfully signed contracts for P-8A, VH-71 and CH-53K. (Granted, the execution of the VH-71 deal has been problematic, but they at least manged to sign the contract.) Another contract -- for the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance program -- is signed, but its status is pending a GAO protest verdict.

The army hasn't done so so bad either. Since 2001, the army gave up on the RAH-66, but signed contracts for three manned aircraft: the UH-70 UH-72 light utility helicopter, the ARH-72 ARH-70 and the Joint Cargo Aircraft. (Granted, again, that execution on the ARH-72 ARH-70 deal has been rough.) The army also held a successful competition for a major UAV contract, awarding the extended-range, multi-purpose (ER/MP) contract to General Atomics for the MQ-1C Sky Warrior.
As he puts it, "A Lost Decade." Indeed. However, here's the really important part. In the comments, responding to someone who (in as many words) accused him of picking on the USAF, while ignoring similar blunders among the other services like the Navy's A-12 debacle or the Army's Comanche. However, the key difference is not in the initial problem, it's in how the service responded to it. As he puts it:
I agree the other services are not exactly innocent. The army's Comanche is a great example and so is the navy's A-12 fiasco. But, you also have to admit, both services quickly learned from their mistakes. The army took the $14.7 billion money in the Comanche budget and completely recapitalized their worn our aviation fleet. After the A-12, the navy learned to cleverly avoid over-stretching on technology, and instead focused on buying upgraded derivatives of the F-14 and F/A-18 for the next 20 years. They still don't have a long-range, stealthy attack jet on the carrier, but, unlike the aircraft, they do have hundreds of new aircraft with many modern capabilities, except all-aspect stealth of course.
Bingo! The biggest problem I see here with the USAF is not that they had problems with a procurement contract or two. It's that there has been an apparent systemic failure among their acquisitions personnel to be able to run ANY programs properly. Why might that be?

Via Lex, part of the possible answer:

Over the past decade, as spending on new military projects has reached its highest level since the Reagan years, the Pentagon has increasingly been losing the people most skilled at managing them. That brain drain, military experts like Kaminski say, is a big factor in a breakdown in engineering management that has made huge cost overruns and long delays the maddening norm.

Kaminski's generation of engineers, which was responsible for many of the most successful military projects of the 1970s and '80s, is aging. But declining numbers of top young engineers, software developers and mathematicians are replacing them. Instead, they are joining high-tech companies and other civilian organizations that provide not just better pay than the military or its contractors, but also greater cachet - what one former defense industry engineer called "geek credit."

Precise numbers are scarce, but one measure of this shift can be found at the air force: As a result of budget cuts, the demands of fighting two wars and the difficulty of recruiting and retaining top engineers, officials say, the number of civilian and uniformed engineers on the air force's core acquisition staff has been reduced by 35 to 40 percent over the past 14 years.

The downsizing "has taken a toll in our inability to refresh our aging acquisition workforce," said the air force's engineering chief, Jon Ogg.

When Kaminski and Ogg talk about military spending and the decline of engineering management, they tend to use measured, military tones. But with the Pentagon planning to spend $900 billion on development and procurement in the next five years, including $335 billion on major new weapons systems, the depth of their concern is reflected in a rising alarm among many in Washington.

Make sure to read the whole thing. The bottom line is that if you don't have good systems engineers, you will have bad systems. As simple as that. I was discussing this with my dad the other day, he expressed amazement that the military could allow these cost overruns to happen. As I told him, the reason they happen is that there is a lot of happy talk between the defense contractor and service about how they are going to develop the ultimate warfighting machine that will feature advanced "paradigm shifting" technology. No one asks the hard questions about how feasible any of this is or how much it is going to cost, the project goes on, the "paradigm shifting" technology turns out to a) not work, b) cost 50%+ more than originally thought, or c) both a and b. By this point the only choices are to either cancel the program and eat the cost (as the Army did with the Comanche and the Navy did with the A-12) or continue developing the system, accepting the fact that it will probably both cost a lot more than originally anticipated and not have much, if any, of the technology and capabilities originally promised. The second path is the one the USAF has chosen with almost all of its bad procurements over the past decade.

The solution is, obviously, more and better systems engineers, but as the article states this is easier said than done. No easy answer for this, and in the meantime the USAF continues to have an aging fleet and failing acquisitions. What happens when the KC-135s get grounded? Not something I want to think about.

On a related note, it appears that the OSD may be deciding to not rebid the KC-X contract. If that is indeed the case, they all had better make sure their teflon armor is in good condition for when they go before Congress to explain that decision. (h/t: Ares)